« PreviousContinue »
before the ear has learned its measures, and consequently before it can receive pleasure from their consonance and recurrence 1.
Of the first stanza the abrupt beginning has been celebrated'; 48 but technical beauties can give praise only to the inventor. It is in the power of any man to rush abruptly upon his subject, that has read the ballad of Johnny Armstrong,
'Is there ever a man in all Scotland- 31
The initial resemblances, or alliterations, 'ruin,' 'ruthless,' 44 'helm nor hauberk,' are below the grandeur of a poem that endeavours at sublimity *.
In the second stanza the Bard is well described; but in the 45 third we have the puerilities of obsolete mythology". When we are told that Cadwallo 'hush'd the stormy main ',' and that Modred 'made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-top'd head,' attention recoils from the repetition of a tale that, even when it was first heard, was heard with scorn.
The 'weaving' of the 'winding sheet' he borrowed, as he 46 owns, from the northern Bards'; but their texture, however, was very properly the work of female powers, as the art of spinning the thread of life in another mythology. Theft is always dangerous; Gray has made weavers of his slaughtered bards by a fiction outrageous and incongruous. They are then called upon to 'Weave the warp, and weave the woof,' perhaps with no great propriety; for it is by crossing the woof with the warp
1 Ante, AKENSIDE, 23. Gray wrote to Wharton in 1755:-'I am not quite of your opinion with regard to strophe and antistrophe; setting aside the difficulties, methinks it has little or no effect upon the ear, which scarce perceives the regular return of metres at so great a distance from one another. To make it succeed I am persuaded the stanzas must not consist of above nine lines each, at the most.' Letters, i. 261. In The Bard the strophe and antistrophe (the first and second stanzas of every ternary) consist of fourteen lines, and the epode (the third stanza) of twenty.
'Mr. Gray,' writes Walpole, 'had shackled himself with strophe, antistrophe, and epode (yet acquitting himself nobly). Letters, iii. 97.
that men weave the web or piece; and the first line was dearly bought by the admission of its wretched correspondent, Give ample room and verge enough'.' He has, however, no other line as bad.
The third stanza of the second ternary is commended, I think, beyond its merit2. The personification is indistinct. Thirst and Hunger are not alike 3, and their features, to make the imagery perfect, should have been discriminated. We are told, in the same stanza, how 'towers' are 'fed.' But I will no longer look for particular faults; yet let it be observed that the ode might have been concluded with an action of better example: but suicide is always to be had without expence of thought 5.
These odes are marked by glittering accumulations of ungraceful ornaments: they strike, rather than please; the images are magnified by affectation; the language is laboured into harshness. The mind of the writer seems to work with unnatural violence. 'Double, double, toil and trouble'.' He has a kind of strutting dignity, and is tall by walking on tiptoe. His art and his struggle are too visible, and there is too little appearance of ease and nature 9.
for me.' Ib.
5 Ante, YOUNG, 162.
'Gray,' said Johnson, 'was the very Torré of poetry. He played his coruscations so speciously that his steel-dust is mistaken by many for a shower of gold.' Torré let off fireworks. John. Misc. ii. 321.
'Talking of Gray's Odes, Johnson said: "They are forced plants raised in a hot-bed; and they are poor plants; they are but cucumbers after all." Boswell's Johnson, iv. 13. 7 Macbeth, iv. 1. 10.
"Whatever Prior obtains above mediocrity seems the effort of struggle and of toil.' Ante, PRIOR, 72.
8 'We meet with a similar thought in Quintilian (ii. 3):-"Prima est eloquentiae virtus perspicuitas; et quo quisque ingenio minus valet, hoc se magis attollere et dilatare conatur ; ut statura breves in digitos eriguntur, et plura infirmi minantur."' PARR, Works, iv. 324.
9 I think there is something very majestic in Gray's Installation Ode [Ode for Music]; but as to The Bard
To say that he has no beauties would be unjust: a man like 49 him, of great learning and great industry, could not but produce something valuable. When he pleases least, it can only be said that a good design was ill directed.
His translations of Northern and Welsh Poetry deserve praise: 50 the imagery is preserved, perhaps often improved; but the language is unlike the language of other poets 1.
In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the 51 common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind 3, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning 'Yet
and the rest of his lyrics, I must say I think them frigid and artificial.' COLERIDGE, Table Talk, 1884, p. 264.
'Gray was a singular instance of a man of taste, poetic feeling and fancy without imagination.' Ib. p. 275.
'Gray's Pindaric Odes are stately and pedantic, a kind of methodical borrowed frenzy.' HAZLITT, Lectures on the English Poets, 1819, p. 234.
He failed as a poet, not because he took too much pains, and so extinguished his animation, but because he had very little of that fiery quality to begin with, and his pains were of the wrong sort. He wrote English verses as his brother Eton schoolboys wrote Latin, filching a phrase now from one author and now from another. I do not profess to be a person of very various reading; nevertheless, if I were to pluck out of Gray's tail all the feathers which I know belong to other birds, he would be left very bare indeed.' WORDSWORTH, R. P. Gillies's Memoirs, 1851, ii. 165.
Carlyle, writing of Goethe, describes Gray's poetry as a laborious mosaic, through the hard stiff lineaments of which little life or true grace could be expected to look.' Misc. (n.d.), i. 185.
i Walpole wrote in 1761-Gray has translated two noble incantations from the Lord knows who, a Danish Gray, who lived the Lord knows when.' Letters, iii. 399. See
also ib. v. 91.
2' About things on which the public thinks long it commonly attains to think right.' Ante, ADDISON, 136; see also ante, POPE, 280.
'This is a very fine poem, but overloaded with epithet. The latter part is pathetic and interesting.' GOLDSMITH, Works, iii. 436. See Boswell's Johnson, i. 404 n., for Goldsmith 'mending the Elegy by leaving out an idle word in every line,' and ante, PARNELL, 10.
'Coleridge (in his Literary Life) says that his friend Mr. Wordsworth had undertaken to show that the language of the Elegy is unintelligible: it has however been understood.' HAZLITT, Lectures on the English Poets, 1819, p. 234.
Professor Robison told how 'he was on the boat in which Wolfe went to visit some of his posts, the night before the battle [at Quebec]. As they rowed along, the General, with much feeling, repeated nearly the whole of the Elegy to an officer who sat with him in the stern, adding that "he would prefer being the author of that poem to the glory of beating the French to-morrow." John Playfair's Works, 1822, iv. 126. 'JOHNSON. His Elegy has a happy selection of images, but I don't like what are called his great things.' Boswell's Johnson, i. 403. See Appendix AA.
even these bones' are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.
APPENDIX U (PAGE 424)
Of Mason's book Walpole wrote:-'I prefer it to all the biography I ever saw.... Never was a book which people pretended to expect so much with impatience less devoured-at least in London.' Letters, vi. 199.
It is in the May list of books in Gent. Mag. 1775, p. 244-1 vol. 4to, price 15s. Eighty copies-all the booksellers had-were at once sold in Cambridge. Mitford, iv. 221. Boswell wrote on May 10:-‘The second edition is come out.' Letters to Temple, p. 192. On July 31 not half of it was sold. Walpole's Letters, vi. 231 n. The third edition appeared in 1807. The work included the poems (many previously unpublished) as well as the letters of Gray.
Mason, writes Mitford, 'altered, abridged and transposed the materials according to his own judgement; so that there is scarcely one genuine letter by Gray in the whole of Mason's volume.' Mitford, v. Preface, p. 8. Sending Walpole two letters by Gray in French, he wrote:-'I fancy, if they are not accurate, a few corrections of your pen would make them so; or, perhaps, if one letter was made out of them both, that would be a sufficient specimen of his excellence with respect to writing in a foreign language.' Walpole's Letters, v. 479.
Johnson said of the book :-'I forced myself to read it, only because it was a common topic of conversation. I found it mighty dull; and, as to the style, it is fit for the second table.' Boswell's Johnson, iii. 31. See also ib. i. 29, ii. 164; John. Letters, i. 317; Walpole's Letters, viii. 3.
'Notwithstanding the extraordinary merits of Gray's matter, he has the double stiffness of an imitator and of a college recluse.' MACKINTOSH, Life, ii. 221.
APPENDIX X (PAGE 425)
GRAY, 51. On June 12, 1750, Gray sent it to Walpole, by whom 'it was shewn about in manuscript.' Copies must have been taken against the author's will. The stanzas,' he wrote, 'were never meant to be made still more public.' Gray's Letters, i. 204, 221; Mason, ii. 74. On Feb. 11, 1750-1, he wrote to Walpole that the editors of The Magazine of Magazines were printing it under the title of Reflections in a Country Churchyard. He continued:-'I am obliged to desire you would make Dodsley print it immediately. The title must be-Elegy, written in a Country Churchyard. Gray's Letters, i. 208. According to Mason the original title was Stanzas written, &c. 'I persuaded Gray,' he writes, 'to call it an Elegy.' Mason, i. 120. For elegy see ante, HAMMOND, 8.
It was printed for R. Dodsley and sold by M. Cooper. The editor [Walpole] writes:-'It came into my hands by accident.' The poem is not printed in quatrains, but continuously. The first line of each quatrain is indented. [Horace Walpole's statement of course is not true.]
In Gent. Mag. Feb. 1751, p. 95, under the heading of 'Poetry, Plays and Entertainment,' are the following entries :'17. The modern fine lady. 6d. Dodsley. 6d. Dodsley. We have not had an opportunity to read this poem, but have heard a very great character of it.
'18. An elegy wrote in a Country Churchyard. There is no further mention of the Elegy.
On Ash-Wednesday (1751) Gray wrote:-'Nurse Dodsley has given it a pinch or two in the cradle, that (I doubt) it will bear the marks of as long as it lives.' Letters, i. 209. On March 3 he wrote:'I do not expect any more editions, as I have appeared in more magazines than one.' Ib. p. 211. For the 'pinches ' see ib.
It appeared in The Magazine of Magazines for Feb. 1751, p. 160; The London Magazine for March, and The Grand Magazine of Magazines for April'; also in two portions in The True Briton, March 6, and April 17. N. & Q. 5 S. viii. 212. See also ib. 5 S. vii. 142, 469; 6 S. iv. 16. Magazines usually appeared at the end of the month.
APPENDIX Y (PAGE 425)
Bentley was the son of the great scholar. His cousin, Richard Cumberland, calls him (Memoirs, 1807, i. 23) 'the humble designer of drawings to ornament a thin folio of a meagre collection of odes by Gray, the most costive of poets, edited at the Walpolian press.'
Walpole wrote on June 13, 1751 - Mr. Bentley is drawing vignettes for Gray's Odes; what a valuable MS. I shall have!' Letters, ii. 257. On Aug. 28, 1752, he wrote:-'The Poemata-Grayo-Bentleiana, or Gray's Odes, are in great forwardness.' Ib. p. 307. In Short Notes of my Life he says of the book:-'I published it.' Ib. Preface, p. 67. It was not printed by him.
Gray wrote to Dodsley:-'I desire it may be understood (which is the truth) that the verses are only explanatory to the drawings, and suffered by me to come out thus only for that reason.' He wished the title to be Designs by Mr. R. Bentley for six poems of Mr. T. Gray. Letters, i. 230. Walpole objected to it, and it was not pressed. Walpole's Letters, ii. 322. In Gent. Mag. March, 1753, p. 150, is 'Poems by Mr. Gray; with designs by Mr. Bentley, 4to. 10s. 6d. Dodsley.' There is no review of the book. At the Fraser Library Sale in 1901 'Designs by R. Bentley for Six Poems by Gray, the poet's own copy, containing MS. Ode to Poesy, extra stanza to The Elegy, &c., sold for £400.' The Athenaeum, May 4, 1901, p. 567.
For Gray's Stanzas to Mr. Bentley see Mitford, i. 153.